International Disability Rights

Championing the rights, respect, and equal inclusion of 1 billion people

The International Disability Rights policy team includes, from left: Foreign Affairs Officer Lynne Madnick, Special Advisor Ann Cody, and Foreign Affairs Officer Charlie Kellett. Photo by Robin Smith
The International Disability Rights policy team includes, from left: Foreign Affairs Officer Lynne Madnick, Special Advisor Ann Cody, and Foreign Affairs Officer Charlie Kellett. Photo by Robin Smith

By Charlie Kellett

Disability rights are human rights. As the United Nations’ (U.N.) Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Yet the rights of persons with disabilities are often violated due to prejudice, discrimination, and lack of understanding and further marginalized by physical, attitudinal, and institutional barriers. 

Special Advisor Ann Cody (center) attends a business roundtable with executives from Accenture, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Disability:IN members at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations
Special Advisor Ann Cody (center) attends a business roundtable with executives from Accenture, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Disability:IN members at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations

To ensure that every person is afforded equal access to these human rights, a whole-of-society approach is necessary, including governments, civil society, and the private sector. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) leads the Department of State’s diplomatic engagement to combat discrimination and abuse against persons with disabilities. An energetic three-person International Disability Rights team, one of several policy teams in the Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs, is driving DRL’s efforts.

Disability arises from interactions between a person and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Disabilities are both apparent and non-apparent and can be physical, mental/psychosocial, intellectual/cognitive, learning, short-/long-term, and/or sensory in nature. Globally, an estimated 1 billion persons—roughly 15 percent of the world’s population—are persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities belong to every race, culture, age, gender, religion, and socioeconomic group. Persons with disabilities are a part of human diversity and humanity, and a community that anyone can join at any time.

The International Disability Rights team makes disability rights an integral—and integrated—part of U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance. They also provide training and resources to Department and USAID personnel to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of their work. They oppose discrimination against persons with disabilities everywhere and in all its forms through three main lines of effort: diplomatic engagement, assisting organizations in advocating for disability rights, and encouraging the expansion of economic opportunities for persons with disabilities.

The International Disability Rights team works with colleagues across the Department and interagency to include disability rights in all levels of diplomatic engagement. They advocate for those countries that ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to uphold their legal obligations under the treaty. CRPD is the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century and was inspired by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). CRPD globally shifted perspectives from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects” of charity to “subjects” with full claim to human rights and active participation in society. The International Disability Rights team also encourages and assists governments to develop and effectively implement domestic laws protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. This April, they joined the Organization of American States (OAS) Group of Friends on Disability to promote the rights of persons with disabilities in all OAS member states. Additionally, in February, USAID and DRL co-hosted the Global Action on Disability Network annual meeting, where donors—including states, private sector organizations, and foundations—coordinated efforts on inclusion of persons with disabilities in international development and humanitarian action.

The team’s second goal is to assist civil society organizations, especially organizations supporting persons with disabilities, to advocate for disability rights. Iceland, for example, does not yet have a national disability rights law, although the National Organization for People with Disabilities in Iceland is lobbying for the signed and ratified U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to be made law. Civil society activists in Iceland requested assistance through Embassy Reykjavik and led a delegation to the United States. The International Disability Rights team connected the Icelandic leaders with American experts who shared technical expertise related to accessibility, education, employment and independent living to enhance the Icelanders’ advocacy efforts. 

Finally, the International Disability Rights team encourages all sectors of society to expand economic opportunities for persons with disabilities. The International Labour Organization estimates that the absence of persons with disabilities in the workforce reduces a country’s GDP by between three and seven percent annually. The International Disability Rights team collaborates with the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (EB), the Department of Labor, USAID, and multilateral development banks like the World Bank to engage corporate, nonprofit, and government sectors to advance economic empowerment for persons with disabilities worldwide.

To strengthen the Department’s ability to advance disability rights internally and advance economic prosperity globally, the International Disability Rights team partnered with EB and former-Bureau of International Information Programs to host successful entrepreneurs John and Mark Cronin, co-founders of John’s Crazy Socks, March 5, 2019. The event outlined key components of a disability-inclusive workplace and strategies for achieving them. John Cronin, who lives with Down Syndrome, took his love for crazy socks to market and now runs a company with 39 employees, 23 of whom have disabilities. 

“A unified workforce benefits everyone,” said Mark Cronin. “We have a big economic advantage over others—why isn’t every company doing this?” 

Events like this help the International Disability Rights team share their message. The team encourages everyone to get engaged and to envision a world universally designed and accessible to all. Their work is interdisciplinary, and they enthusiastically provide technical assistance across Department policy and program offices. For employees that work abroad, consider hosting a roundtable or reception recognizing host country disability rights leaders around the 30th anniversary of the ADA on July 26, during National Disability Employment Awareness Month in October, or on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Dec. 3. Above all, the International Disability Rights team rallies around the immortal slogan, “Nothing about us without us,” and hopes to motivate both the workforce and international communities to include persons with disabilities as partners in all work and create a world in which persons with disabilities enjoy respect and full inclusion.

Charlie Kellett is a foreign affairs officer on the International Disability Rights team in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs.